Arena – Review

“This wouldn’t be the first time I died.”

Welcome to the future. The year is 2054. Virtual gaming has swept the world and virtual gamers are the celebrities of the time. And the RAGE tournaments in the Virtual Gaming League are where the worlds best face each other to fight to the death. Digital death, that is.

Kali Ling is a player on Team Defiance. She has everything she thinks she could want. Playing professionally in RAGE is her dream. She has fame, fortune and loves every moment in the Arena.

But life isn’t as predictable as it is in the virtual realm, and quickly everything Kali thought she had becomes unravelled. When Nathan, one of her teammates overdoses, she realizes that everything she worked for could be slipping through her fingers.

“Funny thing about being on top: It’s a long way down when you crash.”

This book is such an interesting concept. Gaming is something that is evolving as fast as all other technology. Using virtual reality as a way to propel sports into the gaming world is incredibly creative. And plausible. I can picture tournaments like this somewhere in the future, and scary enough, this book is realistic enough to be frightening in that aspect.

There are a lot of good themes in the book. Drug use is the main one, obviously with Nathan’s overdose driving some of Kali’s struggle. But her own reliance on not just drugs and alcohol but virtual reality itself was very insightful. I suspect that having the ability to escape reality could, and probably would be, just as addictive as any other substance.

For Kali, the real world seemed more fake to her than the fake world. In reality, men and women bought fake bodies, had fake features, presented fake personalities. In her own world, she was forced to maintain an image based on what the team owner and sponsors wanted. They created relationships, rivalries, whatever would push viewers and increase ratings. So to her, the Arena was realer than reality.

“Reality was more programmed than the virtual world.”

It’s only when the newest team member, and replacement for Nathan begins to break through her walls, that she starts to realize maybe she has been trying to escape for longer than she cares to admit. With his help, she starts to find her way back, not just to the top of the RAGE scoreboards, but to herself.

“The virtual world is just for fun, and reality is the place worth living.”

As she fights her way back from the bottom, Kali begins to notice things in the VGR world aren’t as great as they seem. VGR controls their lives. If they want them to go out, they have to go out. If they want them dating someone, they have to make the appearances look legitimate. Yet, for all that is expected of them, the relationship is very one-sided as they can be dropped with one loss.

To top all that off, Nathan’s death is getting not just swept under the carpet, it is flat out being erased.

Kali has to figure out how to turn her team into a team, what her feelings actually are towards Rooke, and keep her own struggles at bay week after week. Oh, and they can’t lose a single tournament or they all go home.

This novel was amazingly complex. The idea of using virtual reality along with actual substance abuse and addiction is brilliant. To further drive the appeal, gamers are celebrity, the most envied people in the world. Combine these addictive components into one, and you have a sure-fire path to an all encompassing addiction. Already we struggle with people, especially children, becoming dependent on technology and social media. What could happen if we ramp that up to a subversive, completely interactive environment? I think something like this book, is what.

The other really smart thing is how Jennings used corporate greed, in the form of sponsors and owners to highlight how profits can easily trump everything. They sidestep drug testing, push their gamers beyond reason and when they die or go crazy, they simply replace them and move on. The allure of fame and fortune is enough to entice gamers to play, but is it really worth the risk?

Kali is a strong character. But, she is also flawed enough to be believable and realistic. She doesn’t always make good choices, and the road back to redemption is really tough for her. But she does find a way to put the team first and to find her way forward. She even figures out how to play the corporate game so against both the team owner and their sponsors.

I think that anyone with a love of gaming, or even an interest in gaming would enjoy this book. It is a smart and creative approach to how gaming could evolve in the future. Jennings has created a world that ties celebrity, corporate greed and virtual reality. The effect is fun but also sobering. We see the highs and we see the lows.

I loved the battle scenes. The writing is fast paced and intense, keeping you on the edge of your seat. Each scene within the Arena plays out so vividly, you can hear the swords and smell the blood.

All the characters are very fun to read as well. Hannah and Lily are wonderfully complex, Jennings doesn’t go for easy lesbian stereotypes in her depiction of them. Their relationship is one of the sweetest I’ve read, especially given the scenery. All of the characters are complex, nuanced, flawed but extremely likable. And the writing is filled with tons of gaming references and sarcasm that it stayed fun, even though it is also violent and brutal. There are very funny moments written into what is otherwise an intense non-stop action book.

This was a solid 4 stars. I devoured this book in a day and cannot wait to dive into the sequel.

Thank you to Blogging for Books for sending me this book in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

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